Friday, February 6, 2015

Review of The Korean War by Max Hastings (Pan, 1987)

Just five years after the end of the Second World War, the Korean War was the first of a set of ideological wars between the capitalist United States and her allies and communist states, which threatened to make the cold war with the Soviet Union a hot one.  In The Korean War, Max Hastings sets out the historical context and lead-up to the war, its initial unfolding and the deployment of a United Nations forces, and its bloody progression up to the armistice in 1953.  The book covers the wider general arc of the war, its ideology and politics, military actions, and the principle actors and their acts, but also has a series of smaller stories about individuals, and chapters about specific aspects of the war, such the air war, intelligence, and prisoners of war.  There’s a wealth of information based on an analysis of documentary sources and interviews with over 200 participants.  And rather than just describe what happened, he’s prepared to provide analysis and judgement as to cause and effects.

However, whilst the book provides an overarching analysis, it is fair to say it is a decidedly slanted one, and has a number of notable absences.  Hastings is a British journalist and historian and the book has a definite British slant in terms of analysis and sources.  There is some criticism of the British participation, but largely the British role both militarily and diplomatically is portrayed favourably.  On the other hand, the Americans do not fair so well, in part because they did make a hames of many situations, but it seems that more than that is going on.  For example, the British disaster at Imjin is depicted as a heroic last stand and plucky retreat, whereas the very similar American defeat at Chosin is framed as a deadly calamity.  His coverage of the Chinese participation is relatively scant and certainly coloured by his own ideological position.  However, by far the largest absence from the book is how the citizens and soldiers of the Republic of Korea and North Korea viewed and experienced the war.  Beyond a handful of anecdotes and some sweeping statements, the Korean people and Korean politics are almost absent in a book about Korea.  Perhaps this is to be expected in a book written by a British historian and the bias toward using Western, and in particular, British sources and interviews, but it does create a somewhat lopsided narrative.  The other major gap is what happened in Korea after the war ended in 1953.  Instead of tracking the post-war developments in both parts of Korea, Hastings instead compares the Korean war with Vietnam and the wider conflict with communism.  It’s another way in which he demonstrates that the book is not so much an analysis of the Korean war, but a war against communism fought in Korea.  It’s shame that it couldn’t have been both.  Nonetheless, it’s a very useful starting point for anyone interested in getting an overarching, if particular, account of the war.

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